Table of Contents
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’”
“…they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
—Matthew 2:1-2 & 9-11
Throughout the months of November and December, we are inundated with Santa-themed Christmas décor, candy, and even songs. But for most Believers, the focus of the Christmas season is centered around the birth of our Savior—Jesus Christ.
The Star in the East and the Wise Men
Of the many songs sung during this season, a familiar one is about the three kings—also known as wise men, or magi—who followed the star mentioned in the verses of Matthew 2. This “star in the East” is often used as a decorative reminder to the place of our Savior’s birth.
According to the biblical account, the wise men found the young Child with Mary His mother in a house, indicating that by the time they reached Him, Mary and Joseph had left the manger, but not Bethlehem. This also helps provide a reason why Herod looked to destroy every male child two years of age or under, as not only was Jesus born before they arrived, but He had been moved to a house and was referred to as a child, not an infant…
Herod was not informed of these facts, because the magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod. But prior to that point, they had unwittingly told Herod WHEN they had seen the star in the East. And the timing of seeing that star likely led to the choosing of male children two and under.
Yet, what was the significance of this star in the East? Who were the men who followed after it?
While we understand from Scripture that wise men from the East traveled to honor and witness the King of the Jews, it never mentions exactly who they were or how many came. We can only speculate, for instance, that there were three men. And this is indeed only a speculation as the assumption was made centuries ago, not due to a biblically given number, but to the number of gift types brought to Yeshua (gold, frankincense, and myrrh).
Regardless of what we do not know for certain, the wise men who came to worship the newborn King had only these few resources and skills at their disposal in order to pinpoint the exact location of the Child:
- A knowledge of the stars and skies and how they relate to prophecy—they could interpret the signs in the sky
- A knowledge of prophecies given over the generations—such as those found in the books of Isaiah and Malachi
- The ability to interpret prophecy, dreams, and signs in general—be they kings, wise men, or both, they were educated
- Resources/wealth—which may have given them access to people and information they would not have had otherwise
Therefore, we know that these men came to worship Yeshua based upon their ability to read the signs and know the timing of prophecy. But also because of a deep-seated faith in these signs and prophecies.
So, what prophecies led them?
From Isaiah to Malachi, from the prophecies of Daniel and beyond, there are many that speak of the coming Messiah within the Scriptures. And given the insightful understanding of the wise men, it is possible that all of these prophecies were well-known to them. After all, Herod’s wise men had not taken notice of the star—despite it being so obvious to these magi. They needed the prophetic words to give full meaning to the star.
While the prophetic writings would have added validity to the star in the East, opening their eyes to it, yet, without the sign of the star or an intervention from God, these men would not have journeyed or brought their gifts to the newborn King of the Jews.
The Star in the East Guided the Wise Men
So what do we know about the sign in the sky that led them to Jesus?
There is, of course, the possibility that God placed the star in the Eastern sky and then removed it after the wise men came to their destination. But there is also the possibility of a God-timed astrological phenomenon.
Signs, Knowledge, and Wisdom | 7 Possibilities for the Star in the East…
With the possibilities of astrological phenomenon combined with the knowledge of these men, we can determine several things:
We know that the sign they saw would almost certainly have indicated an important birth in general—quite probably the birth of a king—to most wise men of the time.
Yet, we also know that even Herod’s wise men did not notice or fully understand the signs, and that prophecy and Godly wisdom was what allowed these men to know that they were looking for the King of the Jews—our Messiah.
The word, ‘aster,’ which has traditionally been translated in the Word to mean ‘star,’ can also mean almost any heavenly body. This means it could indeed have been a star they were referencing, but it could also refer to a planet, comet, meteor, or other unusual nighttime phenomenon.
Given the astrological information we now have available, the star may have been a rare sighting of a planet rising before the sun. Many believe this planet to have been Jupiter since that planet was associated with kings.
If this is the case, each late evening/early morning that the planet—star in the East—was sighted after its initial heliacal rising, would have lasted only briefly before being concealed by the sun. This also would show us one of the reasons why the Word refers to it as “star in the East,” since the sun rising in the East would have been the object to obscure the view, and the planet may have risen in the East.
Related to the above point, it could have been a single planet seen during the night and not so swiftly concealed. A single planet without any additional signs would be less likely to be the ‘aster’ seen. However, if combined with other nighttime phenomena or unique placement and proximity to the Earth, it could have been the star in the East.
Related to these single planet theories, it could have been two or more planets in conjunction, not necessarily seen mere moments before being obscured by the rising sun, but seen for a longer period of time within the night sky.
An example of planet conjunction occurred between Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 BC, when the planets met so closely in the sky that they appeared to be a single object. Dates such as this are close to when some believe Jesus to have been born. And this example lends enough time for Jesus to have been moved to a house; possibly be considered a child; and ties it in with Herod killing male children two years of age or less. However, other planets also appear closely together at varying dates between 3 BC to 2 BC, such as Mercury and Saturn, Saturn and Venus, etc. Additionally, there were several occasions during this same time period when three planets came together, once even forming a bright star-like triangle.
Yet, while events like these would visually be close to how we tend to imagine the star in the East that these men followed, its appearance would not last as long since each planet has its own trajectory, making it more difficult to follow than one planet traversing the sky. Unless they saw a conjunction of planets and then followed one, possibly Jupiter, as it was known as a ‘king aster,’ and thereby still being led to Jesus after witnessing an awe-inspiring astrological sight.
If it were a single planet, over time—a little every day—after the initial heliacal rising, it would have moved along the horizon, giving a direction the men may have followed.
If it were two or more planets, they would not likely follow the same direction long enough to use ALL the planets as a guide. The men would have had to have chosen which they considered most important to the birth of the Messiah.
There is a point when orbiting planets may appear to ‘change direction’ as their orbit and ours differs. Instead of traveling east to west, a planet may be seen to ‘shift’ and move west on the horizon. Thus, the star in the East hovering over the place of Jesus’ birth could have been related to this phenomenon; either due to the planet’s orbit staying in one place on the horizon longer to the naked eye, or, because as it changes direction, it is seen to ‘hover’ over a certain location.
Additionally, visual effects, like ‘retrograde motion,’ could have made a planet, such as Jupiter appear to be stopped. This appearance, along with those described above, could easily have someone explaining the ‘aster’ as stopping over a location.
The exact placement of the stars and planets in combination with all of these events would have been rare indeed. Yet, God has the power to have planned the timing down to the second.
There are two thoughts about this astrological phenomenon…
- The sign would have had to appear months before Jesus’ birth so that the magi could reach Him near the time of His birth. (This is not much of an issue, however, as He would have been born and likely moved before they reached Him.)
- The initial heliacal rising occurred on the day of Jesus’ birth and that they did not reach Him until He was several months old or more.
Which option is correct largely depends on what age Jesus was when they arrived…
- If He was born only hours or weeks before their arrival, the first option is perhaps more likely.
- If He was many weeks or months old when they arrived, then the second option would be more likely.
But it also depends on how long it was before Joseph and Mary took Jesus from Bethlehem. If—before they hid in Egypt—they took Yeshua to the Temple in Jerusalem when He was 40 days old as was often custom. And even if the age of male children Herod killed was based on when they first saw the star…
In any case, we cannot know for certain the timing of the star, if God crafted it just for the occasion, or if He ordered the timing of the planets' orbits to create the necessary sign in the sky. Yet, no matter what, we know that God’s design was perfect and important…
It led the wise men to the side of Jesus. It led them to bring Him the gifts needed to answer God’s prophetic plan for His Son. It let those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, to know that the Messiah had come… and, as it says in Psalm 148:3, “Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all you stars of light!” All creation was made by God. Therefore, surely, the stars, the planets, and all the heavenly bodies would worship the birth of the Son of God. Surely, too, at this season when the birth of Yeshua is so fresh in our minds, we too should worship Him as the stars, like those wise men of old. Gifting our Savior with the gift of our praise as we revel in His goodness—our salvation and the praise of His glory in the heavens… both, signs of His unending love.